Suras and Tolerance: Meet Europe's Gay Imam
A homosexual French Muslim imam is spreading a message of religion and tolerance in Europe. In addition to opening a gay-friendly mosque in Paris, he also recently married a lesbian couple in Sweden.
Ludovic Mohamed Zahed dines on a shrimp salad as he tells his story in a restaurant in Stockholm. The trip to Sweden was a long one and he looks a bit worn out.
Born in Algeria, Zahed's parents moved to France when he was a young child. When he went to school there for the first time, his teacher asked him if he was a boy or a girl. He was a delicate child, slender, shy and affable. Zahed recalls his father telling him he was a pansy, a crying little girl. Then his father went silent. He no longer looked at Zahed or even spoke to him.
Zahed asked himself what it was he was put on this Earth to do? Who am I? He was filled with self-doubt. Looking for answers, he went to a mosque at the age of 12.
Islam, Zahed would learn, provided answers to all questions. The Koran is a book about which there can be no doubts. Allah overcomes all resistance. As a Muslim, you are a student of Islam and your mission in life is to praise God.
Zahed read the Koran and became a member of a Salafist brotherhood. He prayed five times a day and cherished the answers he received as well as the support. Zahed decided he wanted to become an imam, a Muslim scholar, and that he wanted to study in Mecca.
Brotherhood among the Salafists meant everything to him. The young men prayed shoulder to shoulder and formed a bulwark that protected them all. Zahed felt fulfilled in the fellowship. He prayed with devotion and even felt there were moments when he knew what it meant to be enlightened. That's God, he thought to himself.
One of his brothers in the fellowship was named Jibril. He had black eyes, dark skin and thick shiny hair. Zahed slept next to him, forehead against forehead. They said to each other "Uhibbuk fi-Allah," or "I love you for the sake of Allah."
At the age of 17, Zahed slept in a room with Jibril and lay awake at night gazing at him. He loved Jibril for the sake of Allah, but in a way that was also different from his love for the other Salafists.
He then spoke to Jibril and his other Muslim brothers about this yearning. Jibril said it couldn't be.
A short time later, Zahed's family moved to Marseille. He studied for his pre-university exams, shaved off his beard and ceased praying, turning instead to partying and drugs. He also had a relationship with an unfaithful man and became infected with HIV. Looking back today, he says he was lost at the time.
He called his parents to his room and told them that he was gay. His mother cried, his father looked at him again for the first time in a long while and said, "We knew." His mother wouldn't stop crying, prompting his father to say, "He's tried to change for the past 15 years, so we have to accept him." He then smiled at his son.
To this day, Zahed doesn't fully understand what happened to make his father came around.
Zahed studied psychology and anthropology and began working for an aid organization. At 30, he went on a business trip to Pakistan and reflected for the first time on his life and whether he was good person or not. A short time later, while in a hotel room, he sank to his knees and began praying.
He also began reading the Koran again. He didn't come across a single sura in it condeming homosexuality. What he did find, though, were plenty of homoerotic poems in classic Arab literature. He then founded HM2F, an association for gay and lesbian Muslims in France.
Two years ago, when the news broke that no imam would bury a Muslim transsexual who had died in France, Zahed founded a mosque in Paris. He intended it as a place where all people could find an imam who would treat them with dignity, bury or marry them and give them a sense of belonging, regardless whether they loved men or women. He also found a partner and the two were then married by an imam friend.
A Voice of Tolerance
Today, Zahed is 37 years old. He travels around the world giving lectures on homosexuality in Islam. He was in Sweden to conduct the wedding ceremony for a lesbian couple.
His trip had been funded by 7-Eleven and took place the morning after his arrival in front of a local branch of the convenience store, decked out with flowers. The sun shone, the fragrance of the flowers filled the air and Zahed smiled.
But the night before, Zahed had confided that he was worried about his own marriage, his husband having moved out just a few days prior. He says that his father told him on the phone: "Couples split up. That's normal, my son. It has nothing to do with your homosexuality." It was the first time Zahed's father had used the word "homosexuality."
Zahed's life isn't perfect. He's ill, he misses his husband and he hasn't found the answers to everything in life. Still, at least he now knows who he is. Zahed has found an approach to his family and he has found his faith. Perhaps the best moments in his life are yet to come.
During the wedding ceremony in Sweden, he gives his blessing and sings the first suras of the Koran. They end with the words: "Keep us on the right path. The path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favors. Not (the path) of those upon whom Thy wrath is brought down, nor of those who go astray."
The couple begins to cry. Zahed looks at the people who have gathered and says, "You can now applaud -- or do whatever you like."
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